Friday, November 25, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline -- Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River

The Missouri River. Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter:  The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

In the last three posts, I reviewed quite a bit of background information that set the stage for understanding the geography of North Dakota, the geologic conditions that led to the development of the North Dakota fracking fields, and the pipeline itself that is the center of the controversy. In today's post, I continue to explore another key background issue critical to understanding the context for the protest, the Missouri River. It truly is central to the many complex issues associated with the cultural and environmental issues in the region. In the following paragraphs, I review some of the basic facts and figures about the river, the prehistoric and historic cultural setting, and some of the important environmental challenges facing those who live within its drainage basin today. Please know that much has been written about the Missouri River and this post only provides a quick review from one person's perspective. The Missouri is one of the most important rivers in the world. I could start reading all that has been written about this river and still be reading decades from now. If there are some aspects of the river that interest you, please talk to your local librarian to find more resources on the topic.

A biker riding on a bridge over the Missouri River near
Washington, Missouri. Click for photo credit.
Like many of the readers of this blog, I grew up near a river. In my case, it was the Fox River, one of two Foxes in Wisconsin. My childhood home of Waterford is bisected by the smaller of the two and Oshkosh, where I did my undergraduate degree, is bisected by the larger, more industrial Fox. Although I knew both of these rivers well, neither of them prepared me for the grandness of the Missouri River. I saw it first in St. Louis where it empties into the Mississippi and saw it much more near Washington, Missouri, the boyhood home of my father. As a youngster, I was stunned to see huge barges carrying grain from the west to processing facilities downstream. Tall metallic bridges spanned the stream as erector set engineering marvels. I could see mysterious currents, deep whirlpools, and splashing catfish. This river was a mystery and unlike any other stream I knew.

While many think the Mississippi is the longest river in North America, it isn't. It is the Missouri which extends from Western Montana 2300 miles to St. Louis. To put this length into perspective, a drive from Tampa, Florida to Los Angeles, California is about 2500 miles. Of course rivers bend much more than roads, so the 2300 miles is not a straight line. When the Missouri River is combined with the Mississippi River it becomes the fourth longest river in the world.

The drainage basin of the Missouri River.
Click for image credit.
But it is not really the length that is so impressive about the Missouri. To me, it is the vastness of its drainage basin. For those unfamiliar with the term, a drainage basin is that area of land in which any precipitation falls has the potential to enter any the drainages connected to the stream. In total, the area of the Missouri River drainage basin is approximately a half of a million square miles, roughly 1/6th of the United States.  It includes portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, and all of Nebraska. Any rain that falls in these areas has the opportunity to enter the Mississippi River at St. Louis. This basin, which includes portions of the northern plains, the high plains, and the central and western midwest, is one of the most productive agricultural drainage basins in the world.

Precipitation map of the United States. Click for image credit.
One would assume that the region has abundant rainfall given the overall agricultural productivity of the region. However, that is not the case. While eastern areas of the basin may receive 40-50 inches of precipitation a year, western areas can receive only 5-10 inches a year. Eastern reaches are watered by moist air coming from the warm Gulf of Mexico. But the higher western reaches are dry since they are in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. As a result, the flow of western tributaries of the Missouri River are often heavily influenced by local rainfall and the seasonality of snowmelt.

Flooding on the Missouri River in 2011. Click for photo credit.
The discharge of the river varies from year to year, but averages about 90,000 cubic feet per second. This is not all that impressive of a discharge given the very large length of the river. Yet the relatively low discharge makes sense given the comparatively dry environment of much of the drainage basin. Nevertheless, the discharge is significant and ranks as the 9th largest river in the U.S. for overall discharge. As I mentioned, the discharge can vary significantly year to year or season to season. Sometimes, in spring after heavy snow years, the river can overflow its banks to cause massive flooding. The largest discharge was 8 times the normal flow rate in 1993. When the Missouri River floods, it tends to flood big. You can check out real time information on flow of the river within the drainage basin by clicking on this interactive map from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Missouri River is sometimes divided into an Upper Missouri River region and a Lower Missouri Region with Sioux City, Iowa as the dividing line. Below this point, the river is navigable for barge traffic and there are no dams. The slope of the channel is gentle and there are no significant rapids or falls. Above Sioux City, the slope of the stream is much greater. Hydroelectric engineers have taken advantage of areas of steepness in the channel to build fifteen hydroelectric dams and many more in tributaries.

Monks Mound, Cahokia. Click for photo credit.
The prehistory of the Native Americans who lived in the Missouri River basin is complex and impossible to detail here. For 10,000 years or more, prior to contact with Europeans, Native Americans lived within the region and left behind evidence of their presence. During this time different cultures rose and fell and regional differences emerged. One of the more important prehistoric settlements in the region was in an area near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi River in a place called Cahokia in what is now East St. Louis in Illinois.

Cahokia, which once had a population of about 40,000 in about 1200, was the most important, and largest, Native American city north of the Aztec world in Mexico. The culture, which anthropologists have named the Mississippian culture, had a tremendous influence throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. While Cahokia was without a doubt the cultural capital, archaeological artifacts related to the culture and many settlements have been found from Florida to Wisconsin and from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains.

A Mississippian site in Wisconsin (Aztalan). Click for photo credit.
Based on archaeological excavations in Cahokia and elsewhere, it is evident that the Mississippian culture was different from previous and contemporaneous cultures in other areas in several key ways. One of the most important discriminating pieces of evidence is that they built large earthen platform mounds and divided their communities by social status. In addition, they developed farming practices that allowed them to live in permanent communities. The stability of the communities created an artisan class that made fine tools, household objects, and ornaments. They clearly had a chiefdom or kingdom society and there is evidence that they practiced human sacrifice. They had a distinct pattern of urban development that included plazas, mounds for religious purposes or for settlement of high status individuals, and a ceremonial center. In addition, some of the communities had calendars, or woodhenges, that allowed them to note the passage of time.

Houses of the Plains Indians were designed
for semi permanence. Click for photo credit.
In contrast, the native population in the plains to the west were more migratory and did not live in such dense concentration. Due to the semi arid nature of the region, natural resources were not as abundant. People had to move with the resources, including the American bison. Instead of well planned cities, the peoples of the plains were more nomadic. While permanent and semipermanent communities emerged, they were not as common as those associated with the Mississippian culture to the east. As a result of the different life ways, the archaeological artifacts from similar times from the Native American plains sites and the Mississippian sites are strikingly different.

Of course, contact with the Europeans changed everything.

By the time people of European origin made it to the region of the Missouri River basin, smallpox and other diseases decimated the Native American population. Some estimate that 90% of the population was lost, some due to the intentional introduction of disease. Early explorers in the region encountered communities that were clearly recently empty with some bodies unburied. The plagues, along with forced evacuations and concomitant violent conflict during the contact period caused considerable social, economic, and geographic stress on those who survived the early ravages of the new diseases.

One Bull, a Sioux Chief. Click for photo credit.
The expansion of American settlers west from the Atlantic seaboard caused considerable migration of Native Americans westward, particularly after the famous voyage of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri. This caused predictable conflict among Native American groups who were forced into difficult circumstances due to influx of population into areas with limited resources. One group which was forced to leave the Great Lakes region moved to the Great Plains and eventually became part of a broad group known as the Sioux. I will return to the discussion of the Sioux in the next post. However, by the turn of the 20th century, most of the Native American peoples in the Missouri River basin were displaced and forced to live in reservations. Their land was taken from them via dubious agreements and trade deals and distributed to American settlers from the east. In the 19th and early 20th century their children were taken from them to be educated using western traditions.

After American settlement and statehood, the region became distinctly agricultural in nature. Even its larger cities, such as Omaha and Sioux City, are built around agricultural processing. The Missouri River became a highway for moving food from the plains to the larger populations to the east. St. Louis, with it centrality, became a major city and a gateway for westward expansion. However, that all started to change late in the 20th century.

The Gateway Arch which commemorates westward
expansion from St. Louis. Click for photo credit.
The loss of the family farm and the expansion of agribusiness, which started in the 1980's, caused yet another migratory change. Young people started leaving and moved to cities or out of the region entirely to find economic opportunity elsewhere. Today, many of the census tracts are significantly older and less densely populated than they were earlier in the 20th century. As our society changed over the last 20 years into one that is more technological and global, the crossroads of our country changed as well. We no longer looked inward, but outward. The economic centers became our global cities which were increasingly coastal. Places like Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Houston saw expansion while places like St. Louis and Detroit experienced challenges as they saw their influence decline in the new globalized world.

Prosper, North Dakota. Click for photo credit.
In the midst of all of this change, a new economic opportunity emerged in the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota. In a region fighting for relevance in the new globalized economy, government officials and those seeking to advance economic growth worked hard to promote the development of the energy sector. While some have applauded the growth, some are concerned about the eventual bust that follows a boom.

Yet it is important to note that the development of the energy sector is not the only environmental issue facing the Missouri River basin. While water pollution is a perennial concern in most regions of the world and is an issue in the region, particularly pollution from animal holding lots, two broad environmental issues can limit the long-term sustainability of the region: soil erosion and depletion of the aquifers.

An image from the famous Dust Bowl of the 1930's in the Great
Plains. Click for photo credit.
Many of the soils of the Great Plains are classified as Mollisols, which are distinctly rich soils found in grasslands. In the Great Plains, they have a deep rich surface A horizon which formed in wind blown silt that was deposited at the close of the last Ice Age. The soil is perfect for growing crops like wheat. The A horizons formed over thousands of years as season after season of grasses provided organic material to the soils. Unfortunately, when disturbed or left unvegetated, the soils are highly erodible. We know what happened in the region during the dust bowl. Today, it is estimated that 2.5 tons per acre per year are lost due to soil erosion. Over 171 million acres of land are experiencing soil erosion at rates that are twice the tolerance level for long-term sustainability. The lost soil clogs waterways and causes significant environmental damage. Some question weather or not our grain belt can sustain itself into the next century with the rate of soil loss the region is experiencing.

Irrigated circular fields in Nebraska. Click for photo credit.
Another serious issue for sustainability in the plains is groundwater depletion. Millions of acres in the region require irrigation to remain productive. In Nebraska, for example, over 6 million acres of land are irrigated every year. Most of the plains states utilize the Ogallala Aquifer which extends from Texas to South Dakota. Some portions of aquifer are expected to go dry this century. For the last few generations the Great Plans have been seen as the breadbasket of the world. Soil erosion and groundwater depletion may limit the region's ability to maintain the ability to provide at current rates.

As a whole, the Missouri River drainage basin is complex. It has a distinct history, a dynamic environment, and a challenging future. When considering the issues associated with Dakota Access Pipeline, it is important have a broad geographic and historical context.

Coming up next, a look at the Standing Rock Sioux.


1. Everyone lives in a drainage basin. What is yours? What is the area of your drainage basin?

2. Compare and contrast the climate of Bismark, North Dakota with that of St. Louis (Chesterfield), Missouri.

3. Do some research on the Internet and find examples of prehistoric artifacts from the Mississippian culture near St. Louis and the prehistoric Plains Indians of the Great Plains. Describe their differences and similarities. What can you infer about the differences in their lifestyles from the artifacts?

4. Take a look at the maps in this document. Based on the maps, what is unique about the Great Plains compared to the rest of the United States?

5. Read this article from Scientific American about the Ogallala Aquifer. What steps can we take to ensure the long-term sustainability of the aquifer and of agriculture in the plains?


Note, if you like this series, you may like this textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline--Part 3. The Pipeline Project

Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

Part 3. The Pipeline Project

As was evident in the last post in this series, North Dakota is going through an energy boom. It is producing huge amounts of oil and natural gas. Although the population is growing, the vast majority of this energy is exported to energy poor areas of the U.S. for use or further export. This post will review the use of pipelines in the U.S., summarize some basic pipeline technology, describe the Dakota Access Pipeline project, and close with its current status.

Pipelines are used to transport a variety of liquids and gases all over the United States. Most of us are familiar with sewer and water pipelines that are part of urban infrastructure. Water pipes bring us clean treated drinking water to our homes and businesses from central water treatment plants and sewage pipes remove wastewater from our homes to a central sewage treatment plant for processing. These pipelines serve our urban metabolic needs and help to keep us safe from public health problems that emerge when large groups of people live together in dense clusters.

Besides these pipelines, in some places there are also natural gas pipelines that transport energy to our homes for household uses such as heating, clothes drying, and cooking. While these pipelines are usually safe, moving natural gas around can cause explosions such as the one that occurred in the Lower East Side of New York in 2015 when 2 people were killed and 19 injured.

While we may all be familiar with the pipelines in urban settings, we are probably less familiar with pipelines used for industrial purposes. They are all around us.
Natural as pipelines in the U.S. Click for image credit.
Crude oil pipelines in the U.S. Click for image credit.
The map to the right shows the distribution of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. It is clear where the major sources of energy are located based on the concentration of pipelines in places like Texas and Louisiana. The pipeline network is more extensive than the network of crude oil pipelines shown below the natural gas pipeline. There are also a variety of other pipelines that carry different liquids or gases limited distances. For example, in the photo below, an ammonium pipeline is shown that carries ammonium from the Port of Tampa to the phosphate mining areas miles away. While in the case of Ammonium we do not see the same coverage of pipelines as we do with natural gas and crude oil, these types of pipelines have had some significant problems. For example, in 2007, a teenage in Tampa drilled into the ammonium pipeline near Riverview, Florida. It caused a significant leak that led to the evacuation of hundreds of people. The teenager was also severely burned.

The first pipelines for oil started in the late 19th century but expanded greatly in the first two decades of the 20th century. The first pipelines were relatively simple and not that different from water or sewage pipelines. They were single lined pipes that transported oil by gravity and pressure. Today, the pipeline technology is very different. Newer systems are built to avoid corrosion, they have lead detection systems, and they have a much higher capacity. In addition, pipeline drilling technology allows pipelines to be located deep underground. Regardless, accidents do occur.
An ammonia pipeline near Tampa. Photo courtesy of
Aimee van Allen.
One of the more recent spills (as of this writing) occurred in Cushing, Oklahoma. Any simple Internet search will show that crude oil spills from pipelines happen somewhat regularly. Some of the leaks are small and are contained, yet others are more problematic like this example from Bay Long, Louisiana from September of this year. While the oil and pipeline industry assures the public that pipelines are safe, there is no doubt that accidents do occur with some regularity. It is impossible to build a totally safe pipeline. The problem with petroleum spills is that they are very difficult to clean up.

Check out the video below from CNN showing the difficulties of cleaning up an oil spill in suburban Arkansas back in 2013.

The Dakota Access Pipeline as proposed (and partially built) is over 1100 miles long and extends from near Williston North Dakota in the heart of the shale fracking fields to Patoka, Illinois. Since it was first unveiled, numerous permits were applied for and received for building the pipeline. Construction is nearly complete in North Dakota. However, one stretch, the crossing of the Missouri River, is contentious because of its vicinity to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There are many legal and ethical issues surround this crossing that will be discussed in upcoming posts. For now, however, it is important to note that as of this writing, the construction of the crossing is halted.
The Dakota Access Pipeline project. Note the Standing Rock Reservation is
shown in orange and crosses both North and South Dakota. Click for photo credit.

If it is completed, the pipeline has the capacity to transport 450,000 barrels of crude oil a day in its 30 inch diameter pipe. The company behind the pipeline is Dakota Access LLC which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners. This group is partially owned by Phillips 66 which owns another pipeline that connects the Illinois terminus of the Dakota Access Pipeline to refineries in Texas. Marathon Petroleum also has an ownership stake in the pipeline project. In many ways, this pipeline is part of a globalized network of energy transportation systems developed by U.S. and multinational industries.

To build the project, the company involved had to get easements either voluntary or involuntary via eminent domain rules. As is the case with many projects like this, most of the access was granted voluntarily in exchange for financial considerations. However, not all land was granted voluntarily and the pipeline remains a contentious issue in all of the states it crosses. However, the most contentious site remains the site where it crosses the Missouri River in North Dakota near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Here, months of protests have generated a national conversation about the pipeline, environmental justice, and the status of tribal lands.

The next post in this series will take a deep look at the heart of the matter, the Missouri River.


1. Where are located in your state? What do they carry?

2. Check your local newspapers and do a search for pipeline accident. Describe your results. Did you find any local examples?

3. Each person in the United States uses on average about 2.5 gallons of crude oil per day. How much crude oil is used in your city, county, or state based on population? If the Dakota Access Pipeline can move 450,000 barrels a day, and each barrel is 42 gallons, what percentage of the Dakota Access Pipeline would your city, county, or state use each day?

4. If you owned property needed to build an oil pipeline, would you willingly give up your property rights to provide access for it? Why or why not?

5. The Dakota Access Pipeline is often seen as a local economic development project. However, it is also part of a globalized energy system. What do you see as the local pros and cons within this context?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline--Part 2 Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale

North Dakota fracking sites. They are located every quarter mile in
some locations. Photo from Google Earth but credited to Glen Fredlund.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale

As I made clear in yesterday's post on North Dakota, the state is undergoing tremendous population change as a result of the boom in the oil and gas industry. The population grew from 673,000 in 2010 to 760,000 today. In today's post, I will explore what is driving the boom by reviewing the geology of the oil and gas reserves and the technology of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The growth of oil production in North Dakota is relatively new and transportation infrastructure is not present to move the oil around the country. The lack of infrastructure prompted the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Shale is a clastic sedimentary rock. To understand what this means, let's break this down a bit.

Click for image credit.
There are three types of rocks: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Igneous rocks solidify from molten rock deep underground or when lava pours out of a volcano. Metamorphic rocks form from other rocks when they are under heat and/or pressure without melting. Sedimentary rocks form from pieces of other rocks (clasts) or via chemical deposition as in the case of halite. If you want to dive deeper into understand the types of rocks and the rock cycle, click here.

Clastic sedimentary rocks form in stable depositional environments. Think about places today where sediment is actively deposited. There are some obvious environments such as deltas and river valleys. However, there are many others such as the base of ocean or mountain slopes, some deserts, tidal flats, lakes, and under glaciers. Regardless of environment, the sediments are brought to the site of deposition by water, wind, or ice which, in the case of water and wind, serves as a sorting mechanism for the sediments. Most clastic sedimentary rocks consist of highly sorted pieces of sediment. It is this regularity which gives clastic sedimentary rocks their properties.

Shale. Click for photo credit.
The coarsest of clastic sedimentary rocks are conglomerates or breccias and they are made up of materials greater than 2 mm in size. Conglomerates consist of large, rounded clasts. The sediments in these rocks are rounded due to some form of transport. In contrast, the sediments in breccias are angular since they have not been transported. Breccias usually form adjacent to mountain slopes. In contrast, conglomerates were once either river gravels or coastal sediments in high energy environments.

Sandstone consists of sediment that is between 2mm and 1/16mm in size. This common rock forms in a number of environments but is typically associated with marine and wind environments. Due to the nature of sand, the rock is typically very porous and permeable. Siltstone is made of silt-sized sediment that is between 1/16mm and 1/256mm in size. It has properties that are transitional between sandstone and shale. Finally, shale consists of very small sediment that is less than 1/256mm in size.

Shale bedrock. Click for photo credit.
Shale is one of the most interesting rocks on the planet. It is made of clay-sized particles, which are the finest particle utilized in sediment and sedimentary rock classification. Clays have very different properties from sand and silt sized particles in that clays are electrically charged particles. What I mean by this is that the size is so small that portions of the clay particles have ionic charges, both positive and negative. Thus, clay particles stick to each other and to other ionically charged materials. This is why clay is sticky and sand is not. It is also why clayey soils are able to hold nutrients derived from fertilizers and can stay wet longer than sandy soils.

Shale rocks tend to form in areas where there is a regular input of fine-grained materials without significant movement of water. They are found in deep deltaic or oceanic environments, deeper portions of lakes, or stable basins such as wetlands or swamps associated with coastal or riverine settings. What is important about these settings is that they tend to be organic rich environments. Very fine grained organic matter can get trapped in the sediment and become part of the rock via lithification.

Shales tend to be grey, black, brown or green in color. They are fissil, which means that they break into flat bedding planes. This fissility is a distinctive feature of shale that helps to distinguish it from siltstone. Shales have a very high porosity but very low permeability. In other words, the rock can store huge amounts of liquids compared to other rocks, but the liquids cannot move easily through the rock. In addition, it is difficult to pump liquids out of shale. Any oil or natural gas in shale was considered impossible to remove until the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

In this image from NASA, one can easily see the lights associated
with fracking in the northwest quarter of North Dakota. Note that
this is a very sparsely populated area of the state. Click for photo credit.
Large formations of shale are found all over the world. One extensive formation in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Saskatchewan is called the Bakken Shale. It is currently undergoing intensive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract oil trapped in pores of the rock. On the satellite image here from NASA, one can see the extensive areas of fracking by the lights in the northeastern quarter of North Dakota.

The Bakken shale is only found in the subsurface and what we know about it comes from cores and geophysical assessments. However, the most important aspect of the formation is that it contains up to 18 billion gallons of oil, which makes it one of the largest energy reserves in the United States. Fracking of the shale and the exploitation of the reserves started early in this century and continues today. It is one of the most recently exploited reserves in this country which has led to the boom in the North Dakota economy.

Fracking, a relatively recent technological advance for extracting oil from shale, is a relatively simple process and is explained below in this video from CNN.

Basically, fluids under pressure are pumped into the shale to release the oil and natural gas from the pore space. The controversial aspect of fracking is that the oil companies utilize a great deal of water and they do not inform communities about the composition of the fluids they pump into the ground. Because they do not explain what is going into the subsurface, there is mistrust about the process and about the outside companies in many areas because local people do not want their local water supply tainted by the chemicals that remain after fracking. In addition, there is concern over the migration of remnant natural gas and oil to local water wells. North Dakota, with its sparse population, has embraced fracking. However, New York, with its abundant population, has banned it. In addition, the advent of numerous earthquakes in Oklahoma has raised the question as to how fracking transforms geologic conditions in the subsurface.

An oil pipeline in Alaska. Click for photo credit.
Regardless of the controversies associated with fracking, there is no doubt that the U.S. is experiencing an energy renaissance as a result of the technology. The U.S. is less energy dependent on foreign resources and is even exporting oil and natural gas to other countries. The growth of fracking in unexpected places like  North Dakota is causing a demand for new infrastructure to support the growth. That is why a new pipeline, called the Dakota Access Pipeline, was proposed and approved to bring oil from the Bakken Shale to the high demand markets of the Midwest. Right now, the oil from the Bakken Shale is transported via train or truck to many energy dependent regions.

The next post will focus on the Dakota Access Pipeline


1. How does shale differ from other clastic sedimentary rocks?

2. Define permeability and porosity. Why do you think these rock properties are important in the petroleum field? Using the Web, find out how porosity and permeability varies quantitatively from shale to sandstone. How much oil can shale hold in one cubic meter compared to an equal volume of sandstone?

3. Do a Web image search for a map of the Bakken Shale. Describe its extent.

4. What are the pros and cons of fracking?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline--Part 1 North Dakota

North Dakota Sioux protesting against The Dakota Access Pipeline.
Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

Part 1. North Dakota

North Dakota is one of the least visited states in the United States, in part, because of its relative remoteness. It is not near major cities and few have reasons to visit or drive through the state. This is unfortunate because it is in one of the more beautiful regions of our nation--The Great Plains. I have been to North Dakota several times and each time I am struck by its beauty. The vast amount of open space is staggering. In the east, which is relatively flat, vast wheat fields extend for miles in all directions. In the hilly west, wild grasslands dominate. It is not unusual to see antelope or other wildlife throughout the state.

Courtesy of Please follow link to his
site for more information on North Dakota geology.
The region is made up of three main physiographic provinces: the Red River Valley, the Glaciated Plains, and the Missouri Plateau. The Red River Valley is a flat lowland which is found as a north-south narrow strip of land in the eastern-most part of the state. The Missouri Plateau covers the southwest corner of the state. It is part of the rugged Great Plains that are notable for highly irregular topography which includes the Little Missouri Badlands. This part of the state is also home to the Missouri River. Between the Missouri Plateau and the Red River Valley is a vast region called the Glaciated Plains. Several remnant glacial lake beds are present in this relatively flat region.

Click for credit.
The climate of North Dakota is difficult. It has warm dry summers and cold dry winters. The precipitation is sparse. To the west, in the higher plains, rainfall is less than 15 inches per year. In the wetter east, rainfall increases to slightly above 19 inches per year. It is very evident that the climate is changing in the region. Temperatures have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit and extreme storms and flooding are more common.

North Dakota is a very sparsely populated state. The population is estimated to be around 760,000 people. To put this into perspective, the population of my county, Nassau County New York, which is considered a relatively low density suburban region, is 1.3 million. The largest city in North Dakota is Fargo, on the Minnesota border, which has a population of about 120,000 people. The next largest city is Bismarck, the capital, with a population of around 70,000. Interestingly, the population of North Dakota is currently at its peak. It was stagnant for much of the 20th century, with much outmigration of college educated adults, but increased during the recent oil boom.
Population density of North Dakota. Click for source.

Most of the European immigrants came to North Dakota from Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia. It is not a surprise that Lutherans make up the largest religious group in the state. In recent years, North Dakota has welcomed refugees from all over the world. Indeed, it is the state with the most refugees per capita.

North Dakota has a rich Native American History. Perhaps the most well-known group are the Mandan people who came into contact with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Today, the Mandan unified with two other groups to form the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. There are five Indian Reservations in North Dakota. The Fort Berthold Reservation is home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people and is found along the Missouri River in the central northwest portion of the state. The Lake Traverse Reservation is in the extreme southeastern corner of the state and extends into South Dakota. It is home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. The Spirit Lake Reservation is in the central northeast corner of the state and is home to the Spirit Lake Oyate. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is home of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and is located in the extreme north-central portion of the state near the Canadian border. Finally, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is home to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It is located in south central North Dakota along the Missouri River and extends into South Dakota. Overall, the Native American population of North Dakota is about 5%. Only Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota have larger percentages of Native American populations.

A North Dakota wheat field. Click for photo credit.
Economically, North Dakota booming. It is a major job creator, indeed, the largest in the country, largely due to the growth in the oil industry. However, agriculture remains the most important economic activity in the state. Vast agricultural fields in the eastern half of the state produce huge amounts of grain and legumes. North Dakota produces over 1/3 of the nation's wheat and most of our canola and flaxseed. It also produces tremendous amounts of honey, pinto beans, barley, and sunflower seeds/oils.

The next post will look at the growth of the oil industry in North Dakota.

Click for photo credit.

1. North Dakota's climate is changing. How do you think this will impact agricultural production and overall economy in the state?

2. Given North Dakota's population of 760,000 people and that fact that each state has 2 U.S. senators, one can easily calculate that there is one U.S. senator for every 380,000 people in the state. How many people per senator are in your state? In my home state of New York, with a population of 20 million people, there is one U.S. senator for every 10 million people. How do you think these representation disparities influence national policy? Is this fair? Why or why not? See this link to the U.S. Census for lists of state populations to look up the population of your state.

3. Graph the population figures (rounded to thousands) for North Dakota below by year. What are the reasons behind the changes or the stability in population?


4. Take a look at the links embedded in the post that take you to the Websites of the reservations. How are the reservations governed? Are there variations? What can you learn about the Native American tribes from their Websites?

5. North Dakota has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other state. Take a look at the U.S. refugee statistics here. How has the number of individuals granted refugee status changed since 1975? How has the home region changed over the same period? What major events caused changes in the number of refugees entering the U.S. and their home regions over time?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Five Sustainability Predictions for the Next Four Years

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With every change of administration there is always a revision of national policy. One of the themes that occurs in this blog is that the U.S. government, regardless of who is in the executive branch, has had limited impact on sustainability initiatives. The government is divided and it is difficult to move initiatives forward in such an environment. Even with the new configuration with one party in control of the executive and the two houses of congress, it will be difficult to roll back many key laws. Nevertheless, there will be change. Here are my 5 sustainability predictions for the next 4 years.

1. Increased activism. President Obama did what he could with his limited power to promote a sustainability agenda. Congress was unwilling to work with him on many of his key environmental initiatives. Thus, the impact of President Obama's efforts, while significant, are not transformative. Environmentalists gave him a pass and didn't protest or cause him difficulty because there was a sense he was trying his best. However, with the likely appointment of climate change deniers within the cabinet, I suspect that there will be a very significant uptick in the efforts of activists that include more civil action such as what is occurring in North Dakota.

2. Coal stays dead. The President elect always blamed President Obama on the death of the coal industry. While the President might have nudged its demise a bit through some regulatory policies, the reality is that the industry was dying anyway through natural economic processes. While the incoming regime may try to bring it back, coal is not a viable long-term energy source for our nation for many economic reasons.

3. Paris is dead but local and state action is back. I've always been dubious about the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. The President never had congressional support. Without such support, it is difficult to put policies into place that move the U.S. forward on climate change. For over a generation now, most of the action in the U.S. on climate policy was at the local level. Under President Obama, the Federal government tried to have a larger hand in the policy and local and state action tried to follow his lead. The seesaw from state and local leadership (during George W. Bush) to limited national leadership (under Obama) and back to state and local leadership under the new administration is a bit challenging for developing a successful long-term agenda. Clearly there will be limited support for climate policy under the new administration and leadership will emerge once again in states and cities.

4. Infrastructure. There is no doubt that spending on infrastructure will increase. It will be up to states to set this agenda. While some may push spending on roads and bridges, many states have mass transit initiatives such as high speed rail projects that are shovel ready. I suspect that some regions, particularly the red ones, will see significant investment. It is long tradition to provide financial payback to regions that support elected officials. Environmentalists in these regions should be prepared to evaluate the projects as they come forward.

5. Pull back of environmental regulation. Given previous statements from the president elect, I suspect that there will be a general rollback of environmental regulation at the federal level which will give cover to roll back state and local regulations in some communities. This will lead to more activism as per my first prediction.

The suspect that the coming four years will see a renaissance of environmental activism in the U.S. Many in the environmental community are very worried and they are already mobilizing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Karst, Caves, and Presidents

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Below is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the annual report of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute on presidents and caves. I thought given that it is Election Day in the United States that some of you might find it a pleasant distraction from the day's events.


Although many of you are reading this after the 2016 presidential election, I am writing this update as I help Hofstra University organize academic programming around the first presidential debate that will be held on our campus September 26th, 2016. By any measure, this election cycle has been one for the record and we are anticipating a lively and raucous debate.

This year found me reflecting several times about karst, the Presidency, and leadership in general.

There are two notable references to George Washington and caves. The first involves his ancestry. His great great grandfather was from South Cave which is in the East Riding of Yorkshire England. While the term “cave” refers to a stream in the vicinity, the name provides the first inkling of a presidential connection to our field. The second reference to a cave connected to our first commander in chief comes to us from our own continent in Virginia where a cave called George Washington’s cave purportedly has a graffiti signature of George Washington on a back room of a small cave in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

A Lincoln mourning pin. The face of President 
Lincoln is found in rock in many commercial 
caves throughout the country. Image courtesy 
of the Hofstra University Libraries, Special 
Collections Department.
Our renaissance man president, Thomas Jefferson, actually was the first (and probably only) president to conduct research in caves. As far as I know, he was the only President to actually map caves (most notably Madison’s Cave in Virginia). He also made significant contributions to the field of paleontology via his interest in caves. He was presented the bones of the newly discovered species megalonyx jeffersonii (Jefferson’s ground sloth) found in a West Virginia cave by a friend and he subsequently gave them to the American Philosophical Society after he wrote a scientific paper on them. Of course, this sensation brought forth great interest in cave exploration and vertebrate paleontology in North America.

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest president, was probably the president most familiar with karst systems due to his upbringing in karst regions of Kentucky and Illinois. He was born in a cabin just above a site where a stream disappears into the vast underground cavernous systems of Kentucky. Known as a sinking stream, the site is thought to be the main source of water for the Lincoln family during the early days of the president’s life. What is fascinating about the connection of Lincoln to karst is that today we celebrate the president by finding his grizzled visage in cave formations in tourist caves throughout the country. Many of us have been on tours where the tour guide tells us to look a certain way or squint just right to see the shape of Lincoln’s face. Even in Borneo, at a cave known as Deer Cave, guides point out the outline of Lincoln’s face in the entrance.

Of course, our most outdoor president, Teddy Roosevelt, was certainly familiar with caves. He declared Jewel Cave in South Dakota the 14th National Monument in 1908 to become the first cave to earn that distinction. Today, several U.S. caves are part of the U.S. Park and U.S. National Monument system. As our only president born and raised in New York City, he certainly had an impact on the way we manage cave and karst lands.

Many geologists may not want to admit it, but Herbert Hoover was the U.S. first president trained as a geologist. While he was largely a mining geologist who was most known for his work on metallic sulfide deposits, he certainly knew of some of the low temperature hydrothermal lead and zinc ore bodies found in some karstic dolomites in the upper Mississippi River valley.

 President Nixon during a 1957 visit to Long Island, 
New York, at the Garden City Hotel. Long Island, specifically 
Oyster Bay, was the home of President Theodore Roosevelt 
for many years and his image graces many important sites across 
the island. President Roosevelt transformed the way we think 
about public lands and President Nixon used his visit to a cave 
in China to promote international cooperation. Image courtesy 
of the Hofstra University Libraries, Special Collections Department.
President Eisenhower is perhaps best known in caving circles as the only president to delist a cave from national monument status. Shoshone Cavern near Cody Wyoming was listed as a U.S. National Monument in 1910 by President Taft. In the mid-century, local officials thought they could run the cave better than the federal government. As a result of intense pressure, President Eisenhower delisted the cave in 1954 and turned it over to the community. In a generation, the cave was abandoned and the federal government took ownership again through the Bureau of Land Management.

One of the most noteworthy cave visits by a president occurred in 1976 when ex-President Nixon visited Reed Flute Cave in Guilin China. The visit was seen as a highly controversial initiative as relations with China were dicey and it was seen as upstaging official United States foreign policy.

To me, the most important cave visit occurred when President Obama and the First Family visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park in June of 2016. He met many of the staff of the park as well our own George Veni and Dianne Joop. It was a remarkable moment for all of us who seek to advance cave and karst research and education in the United States.